Commissioners eye new future for historic Cass County Courthouse

Published 9:26 am Friday, December 17, 2021

CASSOPOLIS — A new vision for Cass County’s Historic Courthouse is finally coming into focus.

Thursday evening, the Cass County Board of Commissioners heard a presentation from Intersect Studio, based out of Kalamazoo, regarding plans to renovate the Cass County Historic Courthouse and give it a new purpose.

The Cass County courthouse was originally constructed in 1898 and modernized in 1974. The courthouse annex, which is where Cass County administration works out of today, was built in 1971. The courthouse was vacated in 2003 after the new Cass County Law and Courts building opened.

In April, the commissioners voted to engage Intersect Studio for services regarding the Cass County Historic Courthouse building to assist with an evaluation, programming, planning, cost and options analysis. Throughout the process, the design company created a plan to utilize the historic courthouse as a county administration building, which would house essential county services such as Veteran’s Affairs, administration offices, the clerk’s office and more, while embracing the history of the building, according to Deputy County Administrator Matthew Newton.

“[Determining a path forward for the courthouse] has been a long process that has been going on for many, many years,” Newton said. “It’s exciting to see these developments coming forward.”

A final proposal is expected to come before the board of commissioners in the new year. After that, County Administrator Jeff Carmen said the project would enter “phase two,” in which county officials would determine a path forward for funding the project, which is estimated to cost a total of $5 to $6 million. Carmen said the county has several possible funding avenues, including grants, private developers or bonds, to name a few.

Building plans did not end with the historic courthouse Thursday.

Chanda Hillman, executive director of Tri-County Head Start, an organization that provides education and wrap-around services to children 0-5 years old and their families in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties to prepare the child and their family for the transition to kindergarten, presented to the board of commissioners to express interest in placing a new Cass County facility in the courthouse annex.

Hillman said the new facility would help address childcare deserts in Cass County.

“If we were to come into this building, we could serve more than 100 children in this building,” she said.

Carmen said he was excited by plans for both the courthouse building and Tri-County’s future in the annex.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “It has been 15 years coming, and we have figured it out. When combined with the possibility of Tri-County Head Start occupying the annex, it is exciting for both government purpose and for providing childcare to everyone in the county.”

Also Thursday:

  • Commissioners voted to increase elected officials’ annual salaries for 2022. Under the resolution, the prosecutor’s salary will be raised from $102,257 to $122,257; the sheriff’s salary from $87,397 to $102,397; the clerk/register’s salary from $69,372 to $79,372; the treasurer’s salary from $67,716 to $77,716; and the drain commissioner’s salary from $57,153 to $67,153.

The salary increases were recommended by an ad-hoc salary committee comprised of commissioners Skip Dyes, Michael Grice and Ryan Laylin. Laylin said the new salary numbers were determined by taking a median income of similar positions from five surrounding counties.

“There were comments of previous years being underpaid and these positions being underpaid for many years,” Laylin said when answering questions regarding the increases. “These are still just on the high side of the median, believe it or not.”

  • Commissioners voted to extend its current state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic until June 30, 2022. If the state of emergency was not extended by commissioners, it would have expired Dec. 31.

“Cass County continues to need regional and state support and resources in our sustained response to COVID-19 and emerging variants,” wrote Emergency Manager David Smith in a letter supporting the extension. “Extending the local state of emergency also assists the Van Buren/Cass County District Health Department when issuing public health orders and recommendations that align with the local state of emergency.”

  • Commissioners authorized entry of participation agreements in partial settlement regarding national prescription opiate litigation and the entry into state local government intrastate agreement concerning the allocation of the settlement.

Previously, Cass County was part of a national lawsuit that named defendants Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health, Inc., McKesson Corporation for their role in perpetuating the prescription opioid pandemic. Since then, the defendants have negotiated proposed national settlement agreements with the State Attorneys General, and a Plaintiff Executive Committee-designated negotiating committee that represents approximately 4,000 local governments that have brought lawsuits similar to Cass County’s lawsuit.

Thursday, a lawyer representing Cass County reported of the $800 million that will be allocated to the state, Cass County is estimated to receive approximately $1.3 million that will be used to address problems created by the opioid pandemic.